Religion has an awful lot to answer for

31st March 2006 at 01:00
rofessor James Conroy's reflections on the role of faith schools in a secular state make interesting if, in parts, disturbing reading (TESS, March 17). His disparaging comments about the views of Muriel Gray and other journalists make me feel uneasy, especially as he labels them, almost insultingly, as "public commentators of a liberal disposition" when they voice the view that faith schools contribute to sectarianism and bigotry.

Yet, oddly, he vents his tetchiness with Muriel Gray by seizing on a fairly low-key feature of her arguments. Islamic children and their access to art may indeed be a plank in her thinking, but much more penetrating are her astute observations on the dangers of fundamentalism and of organised religion in general. Quite rightly, she observed recently that Bush's fundamentalist Christianity should, in tandem with other world faiths, be tolerated in the interests of freedom of expression but not respected as it is a Dark Age nonsense.

This is a very reasonable position, something which James Conroy failed to achieve when he penned the following astonishing observations: "Empirically at least, Britain has managed quite well with a variety of religious schools representing different denominations and religious perspectives.

None would be permitted to exist if they were deemed injurious to the moral, psychological or physical well-being of children."

This is a most flawed statement (a very good example of how-not-to-argue for Higher philosophy students on a critical thinking course). I wonder if the professor has seen The Magdalene Sisters. This movie, written and directed by Peter Mullan, portrays the abuse suffered by women incarcerated by the Catholic Church because they were thought to be a moral danger to themselves and others. More than 30,000 women were subjected to emotional and sexual abuse in these awful Magdalene laundries which operated between the 1880s and 1996.

Trawling through recent newspapers provides substantial evidence of real-life human beings who suffered from the institutional cruelty of Roman Catholic schools. As a student, I shared a room with a lapsed Catholic who had nightmares about the beatings she received in her convent school.

Contrary to Professor Conroy's claim, many children have been damaged psychologically by church schools and have, as adults, desperately sought therapy to heal the damage.

Another problematic assertion from James Conroy is that Catholic schools are predicated on particular conceptions of human flourishing and that, central to that notion, is that a Christian should embrace the stranger or outsider. How does this rhetoric translate into practice? For instance, do gay people qualify as outsiders to be welcomed? The homophobic rantings of Cardinal Keith O'Brien would suggest otherwise.

What's the cut-off definition then of the stranger label? Or maybe it's OK to embrace Muslims in a Catholic school because they are not actually presenting an in-your-face theological or human challenge in the way that gay Catholics do.

However, I do agree with Professor Conroy that the theme of sojourner or traveller is prevalent across religious traditions. This common interpretation of the human condition should therefore tell him that it is important to provide children with a spiritual compass so that they can map out their own route. Fundamentalism and organised religion take power away from people.

Surely it's the task of schools to teach children to find their power. How we should do this is another discussion, but maybe we need to start by exploring the idea that what we see on the surface is not the totality of our existence. In opting for personal spiritual experiences and chucking patriarchal religious systems, we are starting on the journey of what it means to be human without the shackles of dogma.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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